Playdead’s last game, Limbo came out six years ago. It was a gritty twist on what we’d come to expect from a side scroller. The devs knew this and used it to their advantage, using a mature tone hitherto unexplored in the genre. It made for many shocks and surprises. Six years on, Inside is no different.
As brilliant as Limbo was, Playdead’s next game feels like a natural evolution from their last entry. The art style remains minimalist but richer. Puzzles are ingeniously designed. Inside’s tight lipped plot will have your mind churning with questions by the end. That all of this is made possible in a side scroller with no dialogue whatsoever, stands as testament to Playdead’s skill in striking artistry and the subtlest of storytelling.
And… You’re In The Game
From the instant the game starts, there are no button prompts. No tutorials on your first puzzle. You are left staring at a shot of the woods with nothing but the sound of wind blowing through trees. The boy tumbles down the hill and away we go. It’s an impactful start to be sure.
Speaking of wind, it is worth saying the sound design is minimal but Playdead are very effective at using it to its fullest advantage. Most notable is the low hum when a threat is nearby. Think the end credits of Paranormal Activity. This ‘less is more’ approach is seen consistently in other aspects of the game.
Effect For Affect
Careful use of lighting, a minimalist colour palette and use of sound are expertly combined into a great sense of atmosphere. Without a doubt, this is the most atmospheric game that exists within the side scroller genre. The same could have been said of Limbo when it came out. That really stands as testament to how Playdead are masters of their craft. Without spoiling anything, the final chapter of Inside stands in strong contrast to the carefully crafted tension that leads up to it. This cleverly serves up Inside’s final crescendo with more impact and relevance.
There’s never really going to be much to say about Inside’s gameplay. Watch any YouTube video on it for about two minutes and you’ll get the jist. Move from left to right. Grab this, throw that. Figure out how to get up there. At its very core, Inside is the same as seeing any other character that runs from the left side of the screen to right. However, it is the world around the boy and the story that it tells that makes Inside so engrossing and fun to play. A bit like a well delivered line in acting. It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Without saying a single word in the entire game, Inside has a lot to say. From political statements to ideas of what happens when fuel runs out. Inside does not mess about in what its imagery makes you think of. Fitting for a game inhabited by slaves to mind control. The brilliance of Playdead’s design ideas are blatantly influenced by Orwellian(1984, Animal Farm) literature. The mature tone and the surprises that lay in wait for you deliver an experience that will not soon be forgotten.
Speaking of surprises, Playdead are adept at understanding player behavior and expectation. They leverage that with a great sense of timing. Just when you think everything is fine and dandy, they’ll hit you with an ‘oh my god’ moment. It was hard to know when you were looking at a simple screw up death scene or just a worrisome cut scene.
With its drab colour tones and frankly horrific deaths, Inside would run the risk of being too morbid to play for a long period of time. But it never outstays its welcome. It runs for about two hours if you figure everything out the first time. Yet it has such an exquisite sense of risk vs reward.
That rewarding feeling from defeating an enemy (of which there are very few) without actually fighting it. Or proceeding where the game attempts to halt you – it gives the game a more organic feel. This makes the player feel like they are making genuinely impactful decisions throughout, forgetting that they are just playing a linear puzzler.
Inside A Thinking Man’s Game
There are so many things about Inside that will set it apart from, probably any side scroller you’ll ever play again. The faceless characters. The minimalist art direction. The mature tone that isn’t afraid to shock you at the perfect moment. The ending you’ll never see coming that changes if you collect all the secrets. The list goes on.
It is a list that can only really be understood by experiencing Inside for yourself. Boy, does it deserve your attention. The team at Playdead are obviously into their post industrial dystopian literature. Like the stuff they read, Inside deserves recognition as a work of art, right next to Bioshock. A bold claim, I know. But play it and you’ll see…